If there’s a more apt metaphor for the messy end of the Age of Oil, I haven’t heard it. A tanker truck loaded with driveway sealant burst a valve and leaked the gooey gunge along a nearly 40-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike the day before Thanksgiving. A couple hundred cars “were disabled when the sticky goo covered their tires and wheels.” That’s rich.
As the saying goes, the gods must be laughing. Or are they crying? Does this crude omen signal the end of the darkness before the dawn of a renewable energy future, or are we in for an interminable night?
I spoke with a wealthy fellow in Salt Lake City Utah recently about the relationship between humans and nature. His foundation has strong connections in Costa Rica, and he can be seen on YouTube kissing Oscar Arias’ [bleep] in a speech dripping with praise for “the country that has now been able to declare peace with nature by implementing the most effective rainforest conservation program ever conceived on this planet.” Oh please.
The best compliment you can pay a person, or a people is to see them as they are–the good and the bad, the true and the false, the rosy cheeks and the warts with chin-hairs. False praise is more injurious to people than fulminating criticism, and Arias can be seen talking during the obsequious, sentimental speech.
The irony of my dead-end conversation with this American is that his foundation came on the recommendation of Dr. Rodrigo Gamez Lobo, President of Costa Rica’s most prominent ecological organization, INBio (National Biodiversity Institute). INBio strives to be “the most prestigious institution in Latin America in its field of action.” (My interview with Dr. Gamez will be the subject of my next column.)
I’m struck by the contrast between the utopianism of Pax Natura in Utah (which has five Nobel Laureates on its board, beginning with Oscar Arias), and Dr. Gamez’s pragmatism. Pax Natura embodies the romantic view that “nature is perfect,” and that “we should just leave her alone.”
There are two problems with this premise. The first is that humankind evolved in nature along the same principles as all other life. Therefore, since man, a supposedly sapient species, is bringing about ‘the Sixth Extinction,” either evolution went wrong with us, or there’s something fundamental that we don’t understand about the entire process and humanity’s relationship to nature.
Besides, humankind has survived and thrived by making use of nature through the application of our minds, and that involves separation, manipulation, and recombination of the natural world for our own purposes. That humans aren’t acting wisely at present is indisputable, but it benefits neither humanity nor the earth to idealize nature.
Obviously, Homo sapiens (which means ‘wise man’) is not wise. But we can’t survive in any other way except by employing the evolutionary adaptation nature has given us–that of symbolic thought. Our minds enable us to consciously separate and manipulate nature for farming, industry, medicine, and technology.
Certainly there must be wild areas preserved as they are, both for the imperative of diversity of animals and plants on earth, as well as for spiritual value for present and future generations.
However, the idea that “natural law is the government by nature, governing the universe without problems,” as Pax Natura maintains in its “Universal Declaration of Peace With Nature,” simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Such a worldview is actually the ultimate separation by the mind of man, since it conveniently separates humans, who are decimating animal and plant species at an accelerating rate, from the equation completely.
If “nature is perfect,” how did nature evolve a species completely at odds with its principles? It’s one thing to view an asteroid strike, such as the impact that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, as part of the cosmic order; but there’s no way we can possibly view the human species, as we are going, as part of ‘nature’s perfection.’
Which brings me back to the oily mess on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s a perfect metaphor for the end of heavy industrialization, which began with the discovery and first successful drilling for oil in—where else? —Pennsylvania, in 1859.
Whether we’ve reached ‘peak oil’ or not, the Industrial Revolution has run its course. As the primary source of energy, hydrocarbons are no longer economically feasible because they’re no longer ecologically viable. Yet the pace of extraction only increases.
For Costa Rica (which already obtains over 90% of its energy from renewable sources) to be the rule rather than the exception, radical changes are needed at every level in the global society, inwardly and outwardly.